After watching the way he is limping, bloodied and weary, to the Republican presidential nomination, one may be shocked to remember that Willard Mitt Romney has been running for the White House for over half a decade. After a thwarted attempt in 2008, when he was viewed as a conservative alternative to eventual nominee John McCain, Romney soldiered on. During four years of painfully meticulous groundwork, he filled his coffers and built an organization whose sheer size and scope, he thought, would render any challenge this time around pointless. The time and effort seems to be paying off, as his party appears to finally be capitulating to the notion that he will get his chance to defeat Barack Obama. Even so, the process has been nothing like the smooth ride that this micromanager had hoped for.
Starting in August at the Iowa State Fair, when he spoon-fed Obama’s camp a readymade campaign ad by declaring that corporations were indeed “people,” Romney has taken a strange path to victory, one in which he chalks up wins but does so while inflicting great damage upon his larger aim of taking possession of the big chair in the Oval Office. Whether it is routinely describing himself as unemployed, claiming that he loves to fire people, telling a worried citizenry that he too has feared the pink slip, stumbling through the release of his tax returns, assuring Americans that he is not concerned about the country’s very poor, and changing positions more rapidly than a greased-up Rubik’s cube, Romney’s gaffes are ensuring that his eventual primary success will almost certainly be a Pyrrhic victory.
More than five years in, Romney still has no idea how he should be running for president. Indeed, his biggest problem may be that he’s just been at it for too long. While he likes to portray himself as an outsider (and what presidential candidate doesn’t?), his insistence that he has not been co-opted by the D.C. bubble ignores the fact that he’s been trapped inside an even more dangerous one: the bubble of the incessant American electoral cycle. In this absurd environment, Romney has moved beyond being merely a banal, pandering hypocrite. Instead of simply playing the role, he is committing the cardinal sin that plagues incompetent thespians everywhere: he is acting the acting. From the mountain of hair product that gives him a hideous shine, to the satanically clean smile with its impossibly chiseled teeth, to the long, tall face that looks like it’s been stretched for effect, to the rigid gait that makes it seem like he even has to think about how to walk, to his shameless singing voice spitting off-key renditions of “God Bless America,” Romney looks like the simulation of a fake.
And his script ain’t exactly Citizen Kane, either. Already we’ve seen him telling jokes about closing down factories, chumming with NASCAR fans by regaling them with tales of hanging out with his friends who run the sport, or telling the awkward story of how he first noticed his wife Ann at school, but held off because she was in second grade. Indeed, Romney’s every act comes off as though he’s trying his damnedest just to be a phony.
Romney is himself a series of empty contradictions. A man who looks programmed to be president but can’t seem to stay on message. A man who looks out of place in jeans and out of touch in a suit. A man who doesn’t mean what he says and says what he doesn’t mean. The common criticism that Romney lacks conviction misses the true tragedy of the man, which is that he’s not even able to conjure up a manufactured conviction. Another is that he’s too calculating, and that his ability to change stances with such speed and callousness shows a brutish desire to win votes at any cost, even the surgical excision of his own spine. But even that is too kind for Romney and gives him far too much credit. His shifts are not about getting votes, or at least they are never just about getting votes. They come from a real lack of identity, an upbringing and life fundamentally divorced from American reality, and the overwhelming and all-encompassing process of being nothing other than a candidate for president.
A beacon of artifice, Mitt Romney is unable to coherently describe himself, and thus has become, despite being a front-runner for two years now, a candidate who is defined by those opposed to him. Under fire from the other campaigns, Romney has not found it possible to stop the wave of negativity that has left him looking much as he should: a caricature of a Republican candidate. Yet despite finding himself often explained by his own ineptitude, he is still inching closer to a place in the general election. Of course, his likely nomination has remarkably little to do with him. Make no mistake: the Republican Party never wanted Romney to be their standard-bearer. Four years ago, he was quickly ousted by a very erratic 72-year-old whom the far-right wing of the party in many ways detested even more than he. This time, there was simply nobody else. The likes of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich cannot win because, although they can reasonably lay claim to at least some form of identity, they are, as presidential candidates go, much more problematic in their narrow appeal than the visceral nothingness of Romney. Now, there is little left to do but move slowly, delegate by delegate, to the last week of August, when in the fittingly mundane city of Tampa, the Republican Party will finally give Mitt Romney exactly what he deserves: a meaningless coronation for a vapid leader.